Thursday, December 21, 2006

Happy Solstice!

The sun is sluggish at this time of year, crawling above the horizon and then subsiding by mid-afternoon, ready to be overtaken by a flaming five o'clock sunset, the evening stars flickering in the indigo-stained heavens before you've even left the office. High mackerel clouds furrow the sky, a winter field lying stripped and fallow for the season.

This is the time to fill the days with light, to celebrate the moment when the slow-waning sun will finally turn and begin its ponderous, fiery journey back towards Earth, just as the world outside is still bracketed by long hours of chilly darkness.

By rights, a solstice party should go on all night, starting in darkness and ending at dawn with a purifying dunk in the ocean. Forget the cufflinks and the little black dress; a solstice party is a night for red velvet, for getting in touch with your inner Stevie Nicks and draping yourself in at least one item suitable for dramatic mid-dance swooping. This is the party where someone will suddenly decide to paint a mural on the kitchen wall, and where someone else will arrive and decide to fill up the tub in the one bathroom and take an exhibitionist bath among the bubbles and floating candles and gardenias.

Unexpected couples and threesomes and moresomes will pile up in the most unlikely places: in the tub, on the roof, up and down the stairs, on your upstairs neighbors' fire escape. Cluster candles on every surface, get a giant wood fire going in the fireplace if you're lucky enough to have one, and put a massive pot of vin chaud to steam on the stove.

Vin chaud, the French version of mulled wine, will make all your guests want to curl up in cozy little heaps and hibernate for the rest of the winter, but it's too delicious to miss, and you can always make coffee later if people get too sleepy. It's the best thing about winter in Paris, which is otherwise a bitterly cold and unremittingly gray place at this time of year. Served in narrow-stemmed glasses with slices of orange floating like little reminders of tropical climes, vin chaud brings a sweet, wintry warmth to every steamy café. To make it, add a cup of sugar to three cups of water in a big pot, then drop in long curls of orange and lemon peel, a few cinnamon sticks, and a scatter of whole allspice berries and cloves. (Whole spices impart a clearer, more intense flavor to the drink and won't muddy the liquid the way powdered spices would). Simmer it gently for 15 minutes. Add some brandy, if you have some lying around, then pour in red wine to taste – at least one bottle, maybe two. Heat to the point of steaming, without letting it boil. Taste and add more sugar or wine as needed. Float orange slices on top. Alternate with spiced tea, hot spiked coffee or chai, or a potent pour of caffeine-jolted yerba maté, if you really want to wake people up.

And while all this revelry is going on, you can be baking a solstice bread to greet the reappearance of the sun and nourish her weary acolytes. Start the process as the party begins. Get the first few guests – who would otherwise stand around fiddling with the crudités – to pitch in with the mixing and kneading. Most people are pleasantly surprised at bread dough's happy squishiness, like that of a soft stomach or a yielding inner thigh, and the buoyant way it springs back under their hands. As it swells and subsides in its rests and risings, the bread will mark the passing of this longest, darkest night of the year.

After the first kneading and rising, throw in handfuls of seeds ripe with the promise of the next year's harvest. Poppy seeds like specks of blue-black night, deep green pumpkin seeds, tiny round golden balls of crunchy millet, sunflower seeds harvested from the deep rich heart of October's lanky, sun-following flower – they all go into a rough-grained dough, golden with cornmeal and semolina, sweetened with honey and a grate of orange rind. A few hours before dawn, pull out a large sheet pan and pull your dough into the shape of a beautiful sun. Let it rise one more time, then bake until golden. Bundle into a clean towel, and round up the hardiest (or most pagan-minded) remaining guests. Make a bonfire, brace yourself on the cold sand, strip down, and fling yourself into the sea as the sun rises. Then run back screaming, dry off, and share a breakfast of warm-from-the-oven solstice bread.

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